Early this June, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau permitted two new appellations in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, the Tualatin Hills AVA, and the Laurelwood AVA. Both are found on the valley’s largely untrammeled northern border; even if you’re used to traveling the rural roads of Oregon’s pinot country, these are well outside of the areas that hug the 99W—like McMinnville, the Dundee Hills and Yamhill-Carlton. Their addition amounts to a dramatic reapportionment of the valley’s geography.
Let’s start with the outlier, the Tualatin Hills AVA, a large, C-shaped collection of hills west and northwest of Portland, protected on its western flank by high, heavily forested peaks of the Coast Range. At 144,000 acres, the Tualatin Hills is by far the largest AVA in the Willamette Valley and, with only 1,000 planted acres, its potential is largely untapped.
Alfredo Apolloni established Apolloni Vineyards here in 1999, in part because it reminded him of Piedmont, Italy. “You see these big forested mountains, close by, like the Piedmont,” he says. “They really have an effect on rainfall here; we have a couple inches less than other places come harvest, and that can be significant.” At his vineyard northwest of Forest Grove, it’s cooler than vineyards in the south of the valley; Apolloni says he harvests one week to ten days later than wineries down valley.
East of the Tualatin Hills lies the Laurelwood AVA, an area that’s already well established; wineries like Ponzi, Dion, Hamacher and Raptor Ridge have held a long tenure there. Laurelwood subdivides the sprawling Chehalem Mountains AVA on the appellation’s northern slope. Like the Tualatin Hills, Laurelwood is composed of the soils that bear its name, a windblown loess over basalt, the sort that has blown around the Pacific Northwest since the Missoula Floods, propelled through the Columbia Gorge to settle on the north-facing hillsides.
These are among the highest elevation sites in the Willamette Valley, says Luisa Ponzi, whose family has farmed grapes in Laurelwood for fifty years. “The highest point in the valley is 1,600 feet,” she says. “Currently 1,200 feet is where our highest vineyards are, but going higher is a possibility.” In Laurelwood’s sweet spot, says Scott Shull of Raptor Ridge—about 400 to 900 feet in elevation—there’s a very particular flavor profile that emerges. “The pinot noir displays more of an Italian-plum character, as opposed to red cherry. I think there’s more cracked peppercorn, Tellicherry peppercorn, and tannins that feel almost melted, like baker’s chocolate.”
At higher elevations, where the soils become more shallow, the basalt plays a more central role in the flavors. Luisa Ponzi feels like she can taste a difference in her wines when the vine roots have reached basalt. “They move from red-fruited, softly-structured wines to darker, spicier fruit character, with much more structure,” she says.
These new AVAs puts the Laurelwood soil series on equal footing with the Valley’s better-known soil series, Jory and Willakenzie. These have defined the valley for decades: Jory the volcanic, often red-hued, typical of Dundee and some Eola-Hills sites, and the sedimentary Willakenzie soils, of oceanic origin, a substrata that dominates McMinnville and Yamhill-Carlton.
But both new appellations are dominated by Laurelwood soils (in an Oregon first, an AVA is named for its soil). The soil dichotomy that has delineated Willamette Valley wines for decades is now officially a trichotomy.
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